BuzzFeed was once notorious for traffic-generating “listicles,” but has since become an impressive outlet for deep investigative journalism under editor-in-chief Ben Smith. That outlet was prominently in the news this week thanks to its “bombshell” story about President Trump and Michael Cohen: a story that, like so many others of its kind, blew up in its face, this time when the typically mute Robert Mueller’s office took the extremely rare step to label its key claims “inaccurate.”
But in homage to BuzzFeed’s past viral glory, following are the top ten worst media failures in two-plus-years of Trump/Russia reporting. They are listed in reverse order, as measured by the magnitude of the embarrassment, the hysteria they generated on social media and cable news, the level of journalistic recklessness that produced them, and the amount of damage and danger they caused. This list was extremely difficult to compile in part because news outlets (particularly CNN and MSNBC) often delete from the internet the video segments of their most embarrassing moments. Even more challenging was the fact that the number of worthy nominees is so large that highly meritorious entrees had to be excluded, but are acknowledged at the end with (dis)honorable mention status.
Note that all of these “errors” go only in one direction: namely, exaggerating the grave threat posed by Moscow and the Trump circle’s connection to it. It’s inevitable that media outlets will make mistakes on complex stories. If that’s being done in good faith, one would expect the errors would be roughly 50/50 in terms of the agenda served by the false stories. That is most definitely not the case here. Just as was true in 2002 and 2003, when the media clearly wanted to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and thus all of its “errors” went in that direction, virtually all of its major “errors” in this story are devoted to the same agenda and script:
On June 12, 2017, Fortune claimed that RT had hacked into and taken over C-SPAN and that C-SPAN “confirmed” it had been hacked. The whole story was false:
After investigation, C-SPAN has concluded that the RT interruption was not the result of a hack, but rather routing error.— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) January 18, 2017
On December 30, 2016, the Washington Post reported that “Russian hackers penetrated the U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont,” causing predictable outrage and panic, along with threats from U.S. political leaders. But then they kept diluting the story with editor’s notes – to admit that the malware was found on a laptop not connected to the U.S. electric grid at all – until finally acknowledging, days later, that the whole story was false, since the malware had nothing to do with Russia or with the U.S. electric grid:
On November 24, 2016, the Washington Post published one of the most inflammatory, sensationalistic stories to date about Russian infiltration into U.S. politics using social media, accusing “more than 200 websites” of being “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.” It added: “stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign [on Facebook] were viewed more than 213 million times.”
Unfortunately for the paper, those statistics were provided by a new, anonymous group that reached these conclusions by classifying long-time, well-known sites – from the Drudge Report to Clinton-critical left-wing websites such as Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, and Naked Capitalism, as well as libertarian venues such as Antiwar.com and the Ron Paul Institute. – as “Russian propaganda outlets,” producing one of the longest Editor’s Note in memory appended to the top of the article (but not until two weeks later, long after the story was mindlessly spread all throughout the media ecosystem):
On June 22, 2017, CNN reported that Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci was involved with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, under Senate investigation. He was not. CNN retracted the story and forced the three reporters who published it to leave the network.
On September 11, 2017, NBC News and MSNBC spread all over its airwaves a claim from its notorious CIA puppet Ken Dilanian that Russia was behind a series of dastardly attacks on U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Cuba using a sonic or microwave weapon so sophisticated and cunning that Pentagon and CIA scientists had no idea what to make of it.
But then teams of neurologists began calling into doubt that these personnel had suffered any brain injuries at all – that instead they appear to have experienced collective psychosomatic symptoms – and then biologists published findings that the “strange sounds” the U.S. “diplomats” reported hearing were identical to those emitted by a common Caribbean male cricket during mating season.
On November 27, 2018, the Guardian published a major “bombshell” that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had somehow managed to sneak inside one of the world’s most surveilled buildings, the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and visit Julian Assange on three different occasions. Cable and online commentators exploded.
Seven weeks later, no other media outlet has confirmed this; no video or photographic evidence has emerged; the Guardian refuses to answer any questions; its leading editors have virtually gone into hiding; other media outlets have expressed serious doubts about its veracity; and an Ecuadorian official who worked at the embassy has called the story a complete fake:
The sourcing on this is a bit thin, or at least obscured. But it’s the ultimate Whoa If True. It’s...ballgame if true.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) November 27, 2018
The Guardian reports that Paul Manafort visited Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the same month that Manafort joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, a meeting that could carry vast implications for the Russia investigation https://t.co/pYawnv4MHH— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) November 27, 2018
On July 27, 2018, CNN published a blockbuster story: that Michael Cohen was prepared to tell Robert Mueller that President Trump knew in advanced about the Trump Tower meeting. There were, however, two problems with this story: first, CNN got caught blatantly lying when its reporters claimed that “contacted by CNN, one of Cohen’s attorneys, Lanny Davis, declined to comment” (in fact, Davis was one of CNN’s key sources, if not its only source, for this story), and second, numerous other outlets retracted the story after the source, Davis, admitted it was a lie. CNN, however, to this date has refused to do either:
The allegation that the President of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date. We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true. https://t.co/GljBAFqOjh— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) January 18, 2019
Listen, if Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP. Mueller shouldn't end his inquiry, but it's about time for him to show Congress his cards before it's too late for us to act. https://t.co/ekG5VSBS8G— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 18, 2019
.@Isikoff: "There were red flags about the BuzzFeed story from the get-go." Notes it was inconsistent with Cohen's guilty plea when he said he made false statements about Trump Tower to Congress to be "consistent" with Trump, not at his direction. pic.twitter.com/tgDg6SNPpG— David Rutz (@DavidRutz) January 19, 2019
We at The Post also had riffs on the story our reporters hadn't confirmed. One noted Fox downplayed it; another said it "if true, looks to be the most damning to date for Trump." The industry needs to think deeply on how to cover others' reporting we can't confirm independently. https://t.co/afzG5B8LAP— Matt Zapotosky (@mattzap) January 19, 2019
Washington Post says Mueller’s denial of BuzzFeed News article is aimed at the full story: “Mueller’s denial, according to people familiar with the matter, aims to make clear that none of those statements in the story are accurate.”— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) January 19, 2019
If you're one of the people tempted to believe the self-evidently laughable claim that there's something "vague" or unclear about Mueller's statement, or that it just seeks to quibble with a few semantic trivialities, read this @WashPost story about this https://t.co/0io99LyATS pic.twitter.com/ca1TwPR3Og— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 19, 2019
You can spend hours parsing the Carr statement, but given how unusual it is for any DOJ office to issue this sort of on the record denial, let alone this office, suspect it means the story’s core contention that they have evidence Trump told Cohen to lie is fundamentally wrong.— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) January 19, 2019
I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 19, 2019
The morning of December 9, 2017, launched one of the most humiliating spectacles in the history of the U.S. media. With a tone so grave and bombastic that it is impossible to overstate, CNN went on the air and announced a major exclusive: Donald Trump, Jr. was offered by email advanced access to the trove of DNC and Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks – meaning before those emails were made public. Within an hour, MSNBC’s Ken Dilanian, using a tone somehow even more unhinged, purported to have “independently confirmed” this mammoth, blockbuster scoop, which, they said, would have been the smoking gun showing collusion between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over the hacked emails (while the YouTube clips have been removed, you can still watch one of the amazing MSNBC videos here).
There was, alas, just one small problem with this massive, blockbuster story: it was totally and completely false. The email which Trump, Jr. received that directed him to the WikiLeaks archive was sent after WikiLeaks published it online for the whole world to see, not before. Rather than some super secretive operative giving Trump, Jr. advanced access, as both CNN and MSNBC told the public for hours they had confirmed, it was instead just some totally pedestrian message from a random member of the public suggesting Trump, Jr. review documents the whole world was already talking about. All of the anonymous sources CNN and MSNBC cited somehow all got the date of the email wrong.
To date, when asked how they both could have gotten such a massive story so completely wrong in the same way, both CNN and MSNBC have adopted the posture of the CIA by maintaining complete silence and refusing to explain how it could possibly be that all of their “multiple, independent sources” got the date wrong on the email in the same way, to be as incriminating – and false – as possible. Nor, needless to say, will they identify their sources who, in concert, fed them such inflammatory and utterly false information.
Sadly, CNN and MSNBC have deleted most traces of the most humiliating videos from the internet, including demanding that YouTube remove copies. But enough survives to document just what a monumental, horrifying, and utterly inexcusable debacle this was. Particularly amazing is the clip of the CNN reporter (see below) having to admit the error for the first time, as he awkwardly struggles to pretend that it’s not the massive, horrific debacle that it so obviously is:
Knowingly soliciting or receiving anything of value from a foreign national for campaign purposes violates the Federal Election Campaign Act. If it's worth over $2,000 then penalties include fines & IMPRISONMENT. @DonaldJTrumpJr may be in bigly trouble. #FridayFeeling https://t.co/dRz6Ph17Er— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) December 8, 2017
CNN is leading the way in bashing BuzzFeed but it's worth remembering CNN had a humiliation at least as big & bad: when they yelled that Trump Jr. had advanced access to the WL archive (!): all based on a wrong date. They removed all the segments from YouTube, but this remains: pic.twitter.com/0jiA50aIku— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 19, 2019
As I’ve said many times, the U.S. media has become quite adept at expressing extreme indignation when people criticize them; when politicians conclude that it is advantageous to turn the U.S. media into their main adversary; and when people turn to “fake news” sites.
If, however, they were willing to devote just a small fraction of that energy to examining their own conduct, perhaps they would develop the tools necessary to combat those problems instead of just denouncing their critics and angrily demanding that politicians and news consumers accord them the respect to which they believe they are entitled.